The Role of Educator as Storyteller

The role of storytellers and educators (who are masters at storytelling) isn’t all that different: help your audience see that they are the heroes of the story you are telling, the change initiative you are working on, or the learning program you are facilitating.

Leave space for the audience to be a big part of the narrative, so that they can see themselves in it,  believe in it, and themselves.

The best facilitators, professors, and change practitioners  I’ve seen can tell great stories, but they always find a way to point out the audience / client / learner as the hero in the story.

“It’s not me, it’s you”.

The more we can help others see and feel that, the better equipped others will be to craft more powerful stories and have the confidence to go after the challenges, opportunities, and allies that they need for each chapter of their narrative (or, lives).

Learning and teaching as art: The best, most inspiring example of this I’ve seen recently was as a student in Professor William Duggan’s class at Columbia Business School. All semester long we studied the hero’s journey of ‘famous’ businessmen and women, military leaders and cultural icons.

We were inspired by them but their stories of personal and professional triumph never felt out of reach. Their stories were not fairy tales.

We can study and learn from the quests, obstacles, and successes and failures of others and their stories – but none will be as powerful as putting ourselves and those we help in the driver’s seat of their own hero’s journey.

 

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What’s the drill: May 3 – Back to the basics

Ah, just when you think you’ve become an Improvisation Jedi  a challenge emerges to test your will, your word, and the ability to make the conscious unconscious.

Enter, the group project.

Time and time again I’m reminded just how important the skills of an Improviser are, how much practice it takes to apply these behaviors on and off-stage and the reward for doing so.

Sometimes, we need a re-set or a re-boot to wake us up and remind us that these behaviors sometimes hide off-stage when things like stress, the need for control, deadlines, and “being right” want the spotlight for the quick ego boost they may provide.

Ah, silly person. No. These aren’t the rewards that count. It’s the reward that comes from being a team player that we desire most.

Be the kind of Improviser/group project member people want on their team… because you make them better.

So, how do we do that?

1. Notice More it is my obligation to notice, accept, and use every offer/idea that comes my way. We only notice the offers if we are listening and paying attention

2. Start with agreement — Because I believe everything my partner says is fascinating and even, genius — it is my obligation to notice their offer and start with a place of “yes”. To do this well, I need to withhold judgement and blocking in favor of more acceptance.

3. Build instead of tear down – “yes, and” the heck out of their idea.  Two heads are better than one. By building on their initial idea instead of simply sticking to my own I help make my partner look good…great, even!

What truly happens when we enact these guidelines and put them into practice every day is that we allow ourselves and our team-mates to be changed. It’s what happens when we notice, accept, and build more often. We’re in our own head less, and experiencing more.

And if we fail at this today, there is always tomorrow.

What’s the drill – April 14: A new approach to problem-solving

If I were to write a country music song, which, let’s be honest might never happen.. I’d call it:

“Focus on the person, not the problem”.

It seems like it could be a catchy song, if only people would listen to it.

When an employee comes to you with what you see as an unsolvable problem, it’s time to dig deeper. As an Improviser, I’d ask you what the “offer” is. What is the employee really asking for? Furthermore, what does your employee need right now?

Our basic human need is to be heard. When managers respond to an emotional need with rationale data, an employee is not truly heard. Besides, chances are it’s not about the data. There is something else going on.

Get clear on the issue.

Our goal is not always to problem-solve. It’s to build relationships. That comes from noticing the offer in the room, accepting, and building off of it. We can’t “yes, and” if we aren’t fully paying attention to the other person.

How to “Yes, And” by saying “No”

When I first started Improvising, I took the phrase “Yes, and” very literally. My mind was blown by this new concept and I wanted to play with the idea of saying YES to everything I could.

And so… I went skiing. I really dislike skiing. Those darn chair lifts! As the chair lift wobbled and swayed in the cold and my kind friends distracted me from my fear by talking baseball and “Friends” trivia, the phrase “Say, Yes And” pierced through my head.

I thought, I really should say YES…when in my gut I knew I wanted to have said no.

This “Yes, And” experiment lasted a few more months. Until I realized a key distinction:

It’s more important to “Yes, And” your instincts than to say yes to everything.

Well-timed NO’s are strategic. They allow us to create space for more YES’s. 

Improv helps us develop our instinctual muscle, so that we are attuned to what feels true for us and what doesn’t.

This attunement also helps us feel what’s true or not true for the characters we play on stage. We know what makes them tick.

Most of us work-out our NO muscle more often than our YES muscle. Usually there is a reason for it. Ask, where is the NO coming from? As long as the “NO” comes from a real, honest place we are still supporting our partner, ourselves, and the scene.

The key is to not feel like we have to say YES to everything our partner says or does on-stage, but to still find a way to accept it and build on it.

A tricky nuance perhaps. I’d argue that the key is balance — How does your “NO” keep moving the story forward? What about this offer can you still accept?

The more we Improvise (on stage and in real life) the more we may realize that “Yes, And’ing” is less about rules and more about intention and instinct.

The art of feedback – why we should serve more than a “praise” sandwich

A couple of days ago, my good friend and classmate Kendalle Harrell sent me a link  to the latest research article on Performance Feedback… I know what you’re thinking…quite a sexy topic for an Organizational Psychology grad student.

Yes, gosh darnit, it is! We’ve all been given feedback – welcome or unwelcome, formal or informal, yearly or monthly.

Performance feedback is an art. So let’s draw some connections to the art of Improvisation, shall we?

Peter Sims gets us thinking about how, and compares this art to the artsiest folk of all, Pixar animators.

  1. Make it personal – no cookie cutter feedback here. Not everyone likes a praise sandwich, in fact, some people will throw away what’s inside and just focus on the praise, or visa-versa. Strong performance feedback has…
  2. A narrative – a journey, a co-created one at that… between the feedback giver and receiver. Decide on a vision that you can co-create. To help you write this narrative focus on…
  3. Agreement – what can the feedback receiver agree to (and come up with themselves) to improve? Utilize the power of give and take (Thanks, Adam Grant!).
  4. Be specific – focus on specific behaviors, action items, and examples.

Pixar utilizes “plussing” as a developmental tool (you may call this “Yes, And…as you wish).

“The point, he said, is to “build and improve on ideas without using judgmental language.

Here’s an example he offers in his book. An animator working on “Toy Story 3” shares her rough sketches and ideas with the director. “Instead of criticizing the sketch or saying ‘no,’ the director will build on the starting point by saying something like, ‘I like Woody’s eyes, and what if his eyes rolled left?”

Using words like “and” or “what if,” rather than “but” is a way to offer suggestions and allow for the creative juices to flow without fear, Mr. Sims said.”

Performance feedback is a muscle that can be developed with practice.  I’d argue that many of us inherently know this already, but don’t always put it into practice. If we want to improve, we can think about it as we would our own performance feedback. Focus on the specific behaviors we can improve on tomorrow, and who can help keep us accountable as we learn and grow?

The Secret to Getting Ahead, via the NY Times

It would be easy to read yesterday’s NY Times profile of Professor Adam Grant and his book “Give and Take” and conclude the secret to success is to give more and take less.

We could come to similar, easily digestible conclusions with other, recent management development offerings. We could “lean in” more, “be more mindful”, or say yes or say no more often. But would this stick, or just make us more resentful, anxious, paranoid, or busy?

One thing is certain, I completely agree and appreciate Grant’s work and his message:

“The greatest untapped source of motivation, he argues, is a sense of service to others; focusing on the contribution of our work to other peoples’ lives has the potential to make us more productive than thinking about helping ourselves.”

As I see it, the key to encouraging more giving is by focusing on the feeling it brings.  In essence, we follow the feeling. Sometimes it is indescribable, but it sticks with us. 

If giving more, leaning in, taking more time for yourself, or saying no more often makes you feel better, more whole, more on purpose, then that is reason enough to do more of it. Perhaps it will allow you to give with more gusto, to listen in a way that offers the support your friend or co-worker needs.

We can save the quantity vs. quality of giving debate for another time. I feel better when I give help, advice, support, encouragement, and that is a powerful, potent, push to do more of it.

Mixing motivation and giving isn’t easy. If we view giving as a means to an end, (“matchers”, as Grant calls them in his research) than we’re missing the point.

Improvisers give in the form of making their partner look good. We give because it is the Improvisers credo. It builds trust. And it fuels creativity by opening us up to more possibilities and points of view.

But we are also good at saying no when we need to, when it feels instinctively wrong.  We are skilled at the polite, “NOPE!”. Guilt or pushing doesn’t motivate giving, that is certain.

“The most successful givers, Grant explains, are those who rate high in concern for others but also in self-interest. And they are strategic in their giving — they give to other givers and matchers, so that their work has the maximum desired effect; they are cautious about giving to takers; they give in ways that reinforce their social ties; and they consolidate their giving into chunks, so that the impact is intense enough to be gratifying.”

The impact of this work is profound if we give it and share it with others. It is the foundation of a learning organization, of a company of shared social capital and support. And it is sustained not because your boss told you to give more, or because you read about it in an article in the NY Times, but because you know how it feels when someone gave selflessly to you, and you want to pay it forward.

The power of a “Power Pose”

How much space do you take up? No, we’re not talking about oxygen or your belongings. Literally, when you stand or sit, or enter a room, how much space do you take up and how do you convey that to others?

This is one of the tenants of “Status” – a tool Improvisers use to communicate, influence, empathize, and… play. Status is present in our every day lives and asks us to consider how we act, talk, and feel along a continuum of submission to dominance.

We can choose our status. It is ever in flux. Choosing our status can help us gain the confidence to own the stage.

Amy Cuddy of Harvard Business School does a wonderful job of teaching us how to play with status, how being more mindful of status and body language helps shift us neurologically to act the way we want to feel.

Want to learn how? 

Or watch her TED talk, here.

A power pose is one way. What else triggers you and helps you act the way you want to feel?

What’s the drill – March 21: StorySlam’s 5 minute storytelling challenge

In January I accepted the challenge to talk about what matters to me, in 140 seconds.

Tonight, I ventured downtown to check out another public storytelling test-kitchen… the Moth StorySLAM — an open-mic storytelling competition held weekly in NYC and across the country. Here, the rules were a bit different. Brave participants had 5 minutes to tell a true story related to the night’s theme.

What happened in the room tonight was simply inspiring and beautiful. Not only were the 10 stories remarkably polished and moving, but the support, engagement, and positivity emanating from the 200+ people in the crowd was an incredibly special feeling.

The event got me thinking about learning communities, trust, tribes, and the power of story, vulnerability, empathy, and theme to inspire positive change — not just in a 5 minute story, but in a lifetime.

StorySlam events are held in big cities across the USA. Check out the calendar, here.

 

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